The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2021 has been awarded to the people behind the development of a new and ingenious tool for molecule building: organocatalysis.

Research and industrial sectors are increasingly dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules.

Custom molecules are being used to form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases, but much of this work requires catalysts - substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without becoming part of the final product. 

For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules. Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life.

Catalysts are thus fundamental tools for chemists, but researchers long believed that there were, in principle, just two types of catalysts available: metals and enzymes. 

This was until the year 2000, when Benjamin List and David MacMillan - winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 - independent of each other, developed a third type of catalysis. 

It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.

“This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” says Johan Åqvist, who is chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

Organic catalysts have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach. These often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur or phosphorus. 

This means that these catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.

The rapid expansion in the use of organic catalysts is primarily due to their ability to drive asymmetric catalysis. 

When molecules are being built, situations often occur where two different molecules can form, which – just like human hands – are each other’s mirror image. Chemists will often only want one of these, particularly when producing pharmaceuticals.

Organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed since 2000. Benjamin List and David MacMillan remain leaders in the field, and have shown that organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions. 

Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells. In this way, organocatalysts are bringing enormous benefit to humankind.

A more detailed description of their breakthroughs is available in PDF form, here.